I understand the appeal of homemade vanilla extract. What avid baker wouldn’t want a never-ending well of pure vanilla flavoring at their disposal? Some culinary personalities—like Ina Garten, Melissa Clark, and Zoë François—swear by homemade vanilla extract.
But working in professional kitchens, I learned that plenty of pastry pros prefer the store-bought stuff. Making your own vanilla extract can be expensive (depending on the method used, it’s not always cost effective) and some bakers just don’t think it compares to the high-quality extracts on the market.
To get to the bottom of this debate, I compared various methods and spoke to pastry chefs and recipe developers about the pros and cons of making and using homemade vanilla extract. I also made a few batches on my own and compared them against store-bought versions.
Before we get into the process of making your own vanilla extract, it’s important to understand the different varieties available. (Of course, there are plenty more vanilla products to consider, like vanilla bean paste, vanilla powder, and vanilla sugar. But for our purposes, we’ll stick to extract.)
Types of vanilla extract:
Pure vanilla extract, imitation vanilla, vanilla essence—these are a few of the labels you might see in the baking aisle. But what’s the difference between them? According to the FDA, vanilla extract must contain at least 35% alcohol; the vanilla component can come from vanilla beans or “concentrated vanilla flavoring,” among other sources. The source of the vanilla flavoring is the most latent difference in the types of vanilla you’ll find at the store.
Pure vanilla extract is made by soaking vanilla beans in alcohol to draw out their flavor compounds. Heilala vanilla has patented its three-month cold-extraction process, meant to “ensure that vanilla’s 200+ flavor compounds are purely extracted,” according to the brand. Since pure vanilla extract is made with real vanilla beans—in Heilala’s case, beans that are cultivated and hand-selected by Tongan growers—pure vanilla extract is typically pricier than the synthetic stuff.
How can you tell which vanilla extract is the good vanilla? Look to the label. The ingredient list on a high-quality, pure vanilla extract should be short and sweet: just alcohol, vanilla bean extractives, and water. Some extracts will also specify “single-fold” vs. “double-fold” vanilla—this refers to the concentration of the extract. Per the FDA, single-fold vanilla extract is made with one unit of vanilla per gallon of alcohol, whereas double-fold vanilla is made with double the amount of vanilla; as a result, it’s doubly strong—if using double-fold extract, you can use half the amount of vanilla called for in recipes.
Imitation vanilla—sometimes labeled as “vanilla essence”—is flavored with synthetic vanillin, the primary flavor component of vanilla. It’s often dyed with caramel color, though clear imitation vanilla—popularly used by Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi—forgoes the dye. Though its flavor and aroma are less complex than pure vanilla extract, there are some cases where we prefer imitation vanilla over real vanilla; it gives desserts (like confetti cake or sugar cookies) a nostalgic vanilla flavor.
Tosi uses both brown and clear imitation vanilla extract at Milk Bar because they impart “the flavor most people relate to in their baked goods,” as noted in Milk Bar’s recipe for Vanilla Milk. “Vanilla beans and fancy vanilla paste do not taste like home to me, but commercial vanilla extract does.”
If it’s that sweet vanilla flavor you’re after, simply buy a bottle of imitation extract from the store. But if you’re looking for a more complex, balanced vanilla flavor and aroma, it’s worth reaching for pure vanilla extract. Or…it may be worth making your own.
Should you make your own vanilla extract?
Most homemade vanilla extract recipes mimic the technique typically used in large-scale production, calling for you to soak vanilla beans in a high-proof spirit—typically vodka, bourbon, or brandy. Store the jar in a dark place for 3–6 months and you’re in business. Sounds great, right? Here are just a few problems with this DIY method:
- It takes forever. Most recipes call for an initial soak of 3–6 months, meaning it’ll be a long time before you can reap the benefits of your DIY extract.
- It’s inconsistent. Unlike commercially-produced extracts, which are carefully layered and blended, at-home methods are typically far less precise, instructing you to stuff a mason jar or a glass bottle full of vanilla beans, then top the jar off with more liquor as needed. Refilling the jar with more vanilla pods or alcohol as needed will yield inconsistent results. The amount of vanilla flavor in the extract will differ from day to day, impacting the flavor of your baked goods.
- It’s expensive. Considering the steep price of whole vanilla beans, this method can actually be more expensive than buying a bottle of vanilla extract at the grocery store.
But there are other methods. Here are some of the most popular:
Different ways to make homemade vanilla extract:
Ina Garten’s homemade vanilla stash is the stuff of legends. To make it, she submerges vanilla pods in vodka; after at least a month of soaking (but even better after six months), she snips the pods open and squeezes the seeds out. She then lets the extract sit at room temperature indefinitely. Apparently her jar of “good vanilla” is 37 years old and going strong. But if you’ve ever watched the Barefoot Contessa’s show, you might have noticed her using a bottle of store-bought vanilla. “While I do make my own vanilla extract, I don't assume that people at home have homemade vanilla on hand, so I use store-bought vanilla in my recipes,” Garten writes in the Ask Ina section of her website. Nielsen-Massey is her preferred brand.
Food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark uses a similar approach to Garten, but swaps vodka for brandy. She also notes that you don’t need to use the fat, thick (grade A) beans—the less expensive, brittle ones (also known as grade B vanilla beans) work just as well. Zoë François, author of Zoë Bakes Cakes, among other baking books, prefers vodka. Since the clear spirit has a very neutral flavor, “it allows the vanilla to shine,” she writes. She also links to a guide on making alcohol-free vanilla extract with food-grade vegetable glycerin.
Instead of starting her extract with fresh vanilla bean pods, Gage & Tollner executive pastry chef Caroline Schiff takes a no-waste approach: “I just soak used (a.k.a. spent) beans in alcohol. Let them sit for about 3 weeks and you’re in business.” By using spent beans that she’s scraped the seeds out of for another recipe, Schiff maximizes every last drop of vanilla flavor. Schiff tells me she’s been feeding the same “mother” extract with more spent beans and booze for about 7 years.
“I think homemade vanilla is definitely a fun project for home cooks and makes a really lovely gift,” says recipe developer Rebecca Firkser. In terms of practicality, though, she says it’s hard to compare to the commercial stuff. “I go through so much vanilla that it makes more sense for my work, from a convenience perspective, to just buy jars.” Firkser also professes that while her homemade extracts were flavorful, they were never quite as good as the vanilla products from her favorite brands, Heilala and Nielsen-Massey.
Plenty of pastry pros prefer store-bought vanilla extract, which, they argue, is more cost-effective and convenient than making your own. Pastry chef Stella Parks says that DIY vanilla extract classifies as an infusion, not an extract. “A few vanilla beans poked into a bottle of bourbon may have a nice flavor and aroma, but it's not concentrated or layered in any way,” Parks writes for Serious Eats. She prefers to buy high-quality, commercially produced vanilla extract in bulk, which is more cost-effective than the tiny airplane-sized bottles you can get at the grocery store.
The conclusion: Homemade vanilla extract is a fun project for the DIY-ers among us, but even bakers who make their own vanilla extract keep the bottled stuff on hand.
So you want to make your own vanilla extract. I get it: It’s a charming concept, and a mason jar of homemade vanilla makes a great gift. But there must be a better, more precise way than submerging an indiscriminate amount of beans in booze. I set out to find it.
A conversation with two of our test kitchen’s baking experts—Shilpa Uskokovic and Jesse Szewczyk—sparked an idea: What if, instead of soaking vanilla bean pods in vodka, I blended them? Shilpa said she’d used this method in a pastry kitchen where she worked through industrial amounts of vanilla extract on a regular basis. Simply combine the vanilla beans and the vodka, whiz it in a blender, then let it hang out in the fridge to allow the flavors to infuse. Breaking down the pods in the liquor expedites the process, Shilpa said, resulting in fully infused vanilla extract in 4–5 weeks (as opposed to the 3–6 months required of more traditional methods). The flavor only grows more complex over time.
I tested this blender method alongside the classic method of soaking whole pods in vodka. As predicted, the blender batch was far more fragrant and flavorful than the soaked batch, which looked and tasted more like vanilla-infused vodka than vanilla extract. The blended version was ready to use in just over a month, while the soaked version had yet to take on much vanilla flavor.
Unlike the perpetually refilled DIY vanillas, this blender version remains consistent in its ratios of alcohol to vanilla. It also has more body than a standard vanilla extract, its texture almost resembling vanilla bean paste. Still, with the steep cost of beans and booze, this method is no cheaper than buying a bottle of vanilla extract at the store.
The beans: When buying whole vanilla beans, you’re likely to run into a bunch of different labels. Here’s a quick terminology primer:
- Grade A vs. grade B vanilla beans: Refers to the quality of the beans. Grade A vanilla beans are thicker, fatter, and more expensive than grade B vanilla beans, which are thinner, more brittle, and less expensive. Grade A vanilla beans are often used in desserts like ice cream and crème brûlée, whereas grade B vanilla beans are primarily used to make vanilla extract.
- Madagascar Bourbon vs. Tahitian vanilla beans: Typically refers to the location where the beans are grown. Madagascar Bourbon vanilla has the most recognizable, full-bodied vanilla flavor, whereas Tahitian vanilla is slightly more floral and aromatic. You might also find Mexican vanilla beans, which have a smooth flavor and a hint of spice.
I used the Heilala grade A Madagascar vanilla beans in my testing. Since this recipe calls for blending, rather than soaking the beans, I’d recommend using grade A beans, which are softer and easier to break down.
The booze: Vodka will result in an extract with the most neutral flavor, suitable for just about any application. But plenty of cooks use bourbon for a warmer, more dynamic flavor. You can substitute a dark spirit, such as bourbon, brandy, or rum, if you’d like—just make sure it’s 70-proof or above. Using this standard ensures that the alcohol content remains at or above 35%.
To make your own vanilla extract, you’ll need 6 whole vanilla pods and 8 oz. alcohol (70-proof or above). At 12.5% concentration, this homemade extract is slightly stronger than single-fold vanilla extract; use it wherever a more prominent vanilla flavor is desired.
- In a high-powered blender, such as a Vitamix, combine 6 vanilla bean pods (about 1 oz.) and 8 oz. 80-proof vodka. Blend until the beans have broken down, about 2–3 minutes. Some stringy bits may remain; that’s okay. Pour the mixture into a glass jar, seal, and store in the fridge or a dark place in your pantry. Allow to infuse for 2 weeks.
- After 2 weeks, pour the extract through a fine-mesh strainer, using the back of a spoon to press the liquid out of the pulp. Spoon half of the pulp back into the extract, avoiding any large or stringy bits, and stir to combine. Return the extract to the fridge to infuse for at least another 2 weeks.
- After 4–5 total weeks of infusing, your homemade vanilla extract is ready to go. For the best flavor, shake the sealed bottle before each use.
In my testing, I found that the homemade vanilla extract imparted a markedly different flavor than the bottled stuff—great in some applications, less so in others. A batch of whipped cream made with homemade vanilla extract was far more fragrant than the batch made with bottled extract, but had a slightly boozy aftertaste. (At this point, the mixture had been infusing for 4 weeks; I suspect that the boozy flavor would mellow over time.) In this case, I preferred the batch made with store-bought vanilla extract, which lent the whipped cream a more familiar, one-note sweetness. The opposite was the case when I made a batch of shortbread. The flavor and aroma of the shortbread made with store-bought vanilla extract paled in comparison to the floral vibrance added by the homemade extract. Vanilla was truly the star.
“Since my homemade stuff is boozy, I always take that into account,” Schiff says. She uses her homemade extract in ganache, whipped cream, ice cream, or other recipes where she wants what she’s making “to have a little kick.” Schiff uses bourbon as her base spirit and says her bourbon milk chocolate truffles wouldn’t be the same without the homemade extract. She opts for bottled extract in applications where she wants a more straightforward vanilla flavor, like in cake batter or cookie dough.
Start a batch of this homemade vanilla extract in early November and it’ll be ready to use by the holiday season. Bake it into Classic Sugar Cookies or an easy vanilla sponge. The timing also makes it an excellent Hanukkah or Christmas gift—or even a fun host gift for Thanksgiving. Funnel your homemade extract into 1-oz. bottles (which you can buy in bulk on Amazon) to hand out to anyone you know who might love a little handcrafted flavor.